Thursday, February 24, 2005

Michael: Power Lectures

I attended the J. Byron McCormick lecture last week and finally getting to blogging about it. The McCormick lecture series was established by a former Dean of the Rogers Law School here in Tucson. Every year, a major figure in public affairs is invited to lecture at the law school. Past invitees have included Supreme Court Justices, former Cabinet members, distinguished researchers and theorists. This year Samantha Power was the invitee. She is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s JFK School, and author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer prize for non-fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same category, and the CFR’s Ross Prize for best book on U.S. foreign policy. Ms. Power was the founding director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, and formerly a reporter for U.S. News covering the war in Yugoslavia. She is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School. This is a summary and interpretation of Ms. Power’s lecture, not a transcript. Any opinions expressed or conclusions drawn are my solely my own and should not be imputed to Ms. Power.

The central theme of Ms. Power’s lecture was a question: “Can American foreign policy be fixed?” There is no question that it is out of whack. Out of whack with our professed values. Out of whack with our realistic and sustainable role in the world. Out of whack with our long-term national interest. That it is out of whack was not topic of discussion; it was taken for granted, and rightly so. Our allies are so concerned about us that Power told an anecdote of how a Dutch audience, perhaps somewhat wistfully, mistook the central question to mean “How can American foreign policy be rigged?” Apparently, they were very interested in learning how do whatever it takes to get us back on track.

A threshold question for fixing American foreign policy is whether security in the ‘age of terror’ is even compatible with human rights and respect for the rule of law? The obvious and common-sense answer is that greater security comes from attention to the welfare and security of others. Violence and instability have their root causes in injustice, oppression, and inequity.

But there are reasons why integration of a respect for human rights into American foreign policy is difficult, and consequently why few American Administrations have even tried to so. Bush’s policies, repugnant as they are, are comprehensible responses to inherent structural challenges. John Kerry’s moral cowardice on Iraq during the campaign, and Jimmy Carter’s (the only recent President to seriously contemplate the marriage of human rights and foreign policy) sparking of Al Qaeda with his support for the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan demonstrate that Democrats are just as hamstrung by these limitations. Americans, and Democrats specifically, are unlikely to do too much better unless we address some of the structural factors affecting policy-makers’ choices.


  • Those on the receiving end of American foreign policy don’t vote – there is a systemic lack of feedback into the political system from those most strongly affected, and harmed, by foreign policy disrespectful of human rights and dignity. What little information about the effect of our policies on people around the world gets through the media filter, rarely, if ever, results in a major electoral response. There was a proposal floating around that everyone in the world should get to vote for the American President because of the strong influence the holder of the office can have on people outside our borders. That will never happen, of course, but the logic underlying the proposal recognizes this lack of connection between the consequences of policy and the legitimate political forces acting on the Presidency.


  • The Constitution does not provide sufficient checks and balances in international affairs – there is no Bill of Rights for non-nationals, no courts which they have reasonable access to for relief, no discipline of over-reaching or systemic opposition to whatever policy the Administration sets. Theoretically, international law is supposed to fill in many of these gaps, but the lack of an enforcement mechanism of sufficient robustness enables rogue Administrations to stream-roller international norms just as Bush is doing presently. Arguably, the Senate was supposed to be a locus of countervailing power in international affairs via the treaty power, and Congress as a whole via the power to declare war and control spending. We have seen all of these formal controls fall by the wayside over the past century, however. The treaty power has been marginalized by the Concurrent Resolution and Executive Agreements. The war power is never used, even in the midst of the most sustained combat operations. And we have seen in recent years several instances of how the Administration is able to reprogram and redirect money without the consent of Congress, and generally get away with it. In short, there is little left of even those weak formal restraints the Constitution provides.


  • The goals of American foreign policy are undefined – absent any pressing domestic interest, i.e. Israel, or a group that is widely perceived as ‘the enemy’, i.e. Indian savages, fascist aggressors. the Red Menace, or Islamic terrorists, foreign policy is very vulnerable to cooptation for short-term economic advantage of special interests. America’s history is rife with examples of domestic special interests using American military and diplomatic power to secure or to maintain special advantages in foreign markets. The result is that short-term economic advantages for a few are often prioritized above fairness, democracy, human rights, economic equity, and constitutional rule for the many abroad. Putting the weight of American influence and power behind maintenance of dictatorial and repressive regimes, and in service to imperialist corporate practices, is ultimately against the national interest; but the American political system makes foreign policy especially prone to such short-term and zero-sum thinking.


  • The weakness of international law in our culture and system of government – the institutions of international cooperation are defective and weakened by the same structural features which compromise foreign policy formation. For instance, most European nations courts freely incorporate international law and the practices of foreign legal systems, ours is highly resistant to making international law, even treaties which we have ratified, truly endogenous to our jurisprudence. Constitutional law still makes distinctions between self-implementing and non-self-implementing treaties, which results in absurdities; a treaty may be ratified, but its provisions may have no force or effect in American courts.


  • We are not always welcome to intervene in human rights crises – we lack the political capital and goodwill internationally to use military and economic coercion without seep suspicion of ulterior motives. This makes us weak and unreliable even in the face of a clear evil and even when our goals are purely altruistic. Good examples of this weakness are Rwanda, Somalia, and currently Sudan.



So where does this endemic weakness of foreign policy leave us? With Bush’s foreign policy. The isolationist faction of the GOP has lost traction because the tragedy of 9/11 has so clearly demonstrated that globalization has ended our relative isolation in the world. But the same ethic of insularity is demonstrated in the exceptionalism and unilateralism of this Administration: we have to play, but we won’t use their rules – heck, we don’t even need a team. Different label, same stupid.

Some hopeful signs exist that, at least rhetorically, if not in practice, even the Bush Administration is realizing that how a regime treats its own people is a good indicator of how reliable they are as a security partner. The human rights record of a state is reliable predictor of a state’s likelihood to become a security threat to the world. Failed states are also dangerous; they destabilize the region and harbor terrorists. These are truisms that thinkers in the liberal realist camp have been repeating for many years, and they are now being mouthed by Bush and the GOP. Yet, we still are supporting Israel unconditionally, despite what it is doing to the Palestinian minority both in Israel and in the occupied territories. We still send the most military aid, besides Israel, to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. All of these are repressive authoritarian regimes, with serious legitimacy problems and terrible human rights records. Our support for them is like a time-bomb waiting to go off; like Iran, or like Iraq, but with more people, more oil, and nuclear weapons. Perhaps Bush’s rhetoric points to a willingness to be less accommodating of geopolitical allies abusing the rights of their own citizens, but perhaps it’s just rhetoric.

A major problem facing the U.S. if we try to become less tolerant of human rights abuses among our allies is that the legitimacy of efforts in that direction have been undermined by our actions over the past 60 years. And our track record is only getting worse. And Bush’s failures in Iraq have harmed our reputation immensely. Now, even perfectly rational arguments can fail to get a hearing because the world is simply sick of us. Even more damaging is a la carteist policy. We proclaim that we love democracy, yet we support Pakistan and Uzbekistan. We claim to support human rights, yet Guantanamo’s Camp X-ray and a string of secret camps exist, we are torturing common criminals in Abu Ghraib prison, we are using extraordinary rendition to send prisoners to Syria for torture, and people are being boiled alive in Uzbekistan. We seem to be either dangerously insane or deeply hypocritical. Only sustained consistency between our values and our actions can pull us out of the nose-dive we are in.

To rebuild our credibility and get the world cooperating with us in such endeavors, we have to pull away from unilateralism and work to strengthen those very international structures, such as the UN and NATO, of which the Conservative movement, and many others, are so deeply skeptical. Critique of the UN is overbroad and often misses its strengths. The UN is just an empty building without the representatives who are sent there. If there is a failure of the UN as a forum for working out political solutions among nations, it is the community of nations that is defective, not the UN. Much of what the UN accomplishes happens through the Secretariat, not the political UN. The humanitarian aid missions of the UN can be corrupt and inefficient, but they more often work well and are often the last line of defense between people in crisis and death.

In the end, neither the world’s fear nor its affection will serve us very well in creating rational foreign policy. What we really need is respect. Respect comes from what we demonstrate clearly that we stand FOR, as much as what we stand AGAINST. We need to be able to make people want what we want. That is the essence of soft power and the key to real security in this globalized world. We will never be completely secure. If people want badly enough to hurt us, they can. We can improve security, but we can’t make the integration and interdependence of globalization go away. In the end, our best line of defense is to make fewer enemies.

After the lecture I spoke with Ms. Power about several topics, but one topic really struck home for me. She is an expert in genocide and I asked her if she thought that American actions in Iraq for the past dozen years was tantamount to genocide. She said that the scale of the deaths that have been a direct consequence of American policy are commensurate with that category, but the intent is not. She was quick to point out, however, that future historians will certainly see many American actions in Iraq, from 1992 on, as grave war crimes and crimes against humanity, and those who ordered and executed those actions as the worst sort of criminals.

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